Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Indonesian President’s Failure at the Fuel Pump Made a Lame Duck Even Less Popular

Has President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono become a lame duck? Many commentators think so. For months, several Indonesian media outlets, including the usually reserved Kompas, have splattered the term “autopilot” in their headlines and run opinion pieces about the president’s autopilot regime, as the government appears adrift and seems to have left the people to their own devices.

Last week when protests erupted against a proposed increase in the price of subsidized fuel, the government’s response only seemed to confirm Yudhoyono’s status as a lame duck. Many analysts have agreed that the Democratic Party was badly outmaneuvered by its political opponents, with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Golkar Party finishing ahead.

Looking back, Golkar politicians can claim they knew what they were doing, sensing the pulse of public opinion and acting to minimize the pain at the pump while brokering a deal to save the state’s budget. PDI-P lawmakers can also claim they took the interests of “small people” to heart by opposing the proposed fuel price increase.

The government and the Democratic Party, on the other hand, came off as out of touch by trying to force a painful price hike on already suffering people. At the same time, the party blundered its chance to implement the policy by failing to make a strong case for it.

It was amusing to watch how the government struggled to convey its message as the opposition accused it of being a slave to the interests of multinational companies and of hoodwinking the masses, since oil coming from inside Indonesia is essentially free.

Yudhoyono’s travels in China and South Korea during the week of crisis were also criticized, seen as a way to escape the turmoil back home instead of sticking around to convince his nation of the need for the price hike. These trips abroad reinforced his image as a weak and lackadaisical president.

So why did the government seem surprised by the critical reactions to its proposed fuel price increase? Because the policy has never before been politicized.

Blame for this politicking should land squarely on the Democratic Party’s own shoulders. In the last elections, in 2009, the party released campaign advertisements boasting that Yudhoyono’s government was the first that was able to reduce the price of fuel. Although the claim was widely criticized, it helped propel the party to the top in the legislative elections.

At the same time, however, the ads guaranteed that the party’s rivals would use any rise in fuel prices to hammer Yudhoyono and the Democrats.

As a result, although Tempo reported in January that PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri had asked the government to raise the price of subsidized fuel due to growing hostility between the United States and Iran, the PDI-P did not think twice about attacking the government to score political points last week. Golkar also squared off with the Democratic Party on the issue of direct cash assistance.

It seems the government expected a degree of grumbling about the unpopular policy but assumed that at the end of the day, everyone would fall back in line and agree.

Consequently, it was caught completely off guard by opposition rallies that erupted nationwide and degenerated into an orgy of violence. Unruly mobs of labor unionists and university students looted fuel stations and trucks, whose sole fault had been to unfortunately cross the mob’s path. Protesters ransacked buildings and caused massive traffic jams, and the threat of military intervention did little to keep the disgruntled masses at home.

Caught unprepared, the government had no choice but to capitulate, allowing Golkar and the PDI-P to declare victory. Without the political elite willing to politicize the fuel price increase, there would have been no massive rallies. Such was the political calculus to secure their positions for the 2014 legislative elections and to ensure that this time, the Democratic Party would share the fallout of the fuel price increase.

The PDI-P and Golkar would not have been able to stir up so much opposition to the government’s policy had Yudhoyono held onto the popularity that won him the election in 2009.

Some may blame the media for their constant assault on the government, but Yudhoyono undeniably planted the seeds of trouble himself, losing support with his indecisiveness, his inability to put his party back in order and his apparently ineffectual response to ethnic and religious conflicts, most notably the GKI Yasmin church in Bogor.

And that’s not even mentioning the many missteps and gaffes of Yudhoyono’s close political allies, such as Marzuki Alie, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Ruhut Sitompul, a Democratic lawmaker.

Yudhoyono is now trapped in a bind. His growing unpopularity curtails his freedom of action and reinforces the notion that he has become a lame duck, which only further reduces his popularity. Not surprisingly, his political rivals smelled blood last week with the fuel price protests, and they moved to hit him hard.

Still, all is not yet lost for the president. Yudhoyono remains the most popular politician in Indonesia with high name recognition among the people, and he is still in command of the bully pulpit, the office of the Indonesian president. The question is, does he still have the presidential will to use that command in order to reverse this loss?

By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan). Jakarta Globe

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